It's funny that the third movie in the Harry Potter series opened on a weekend where many students are celebrating their school year being over. But, what better way to end out the school year than seeing a movie about a school many would love to attend? Who wouldn't love to take a class about magical potions instead of regular chemistry? But with every new school year there are new faces in the crowd, and there are a few new faces here in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, both in front of and behind the camera. But it's our old favorites that take command of the movie and make it watchable, despite the vast changes we see from the first two movies.
The movie starts out like the first two, with Mr. Potter (Radcliffe) being miserable at "home" with his mean relatives. But they are more aware of his powers now and they almost fear him. But after an unfortunate "baloon" incident, Potter decides to take his leave for good of the family, and after a bizarre/entertaining bus ride and a visit to the Ministry of Magic, Harry is back at his real home of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But, of course, there is much to fear at school, this time with the prison break of the supposedly-nefarious Sirius Black (Oldman), who, of course, is looking for our young Mr. Potter.
I was very interested to see how this movie would turn out, mainly to see how the new director, Alfonso Cuaron and the new Headmaster Dumbledore, Michael Gambon would pan out. As it turns out, while Cuaron did an admirable job, although he made changes I disagreed with, Gambon just didn't work out as Dumbledore. For one, he had a totally different look than the late Richard Harris did as Dumbledore. They changed his wardrobe extensively, even though it had been nearly identical in the first two movies. They obviously couldn't make Gambon exactly like Harris, but the way he portrayed Dumbledore, it was like they wanted to create a totally different character. Gambon was more playful and curious, contrasting the stoic nature that Harris portrayed so nicely in the first two movies. The changes were just too drastic, especially this deep in the series, and especially given the immense popularity of the books and the movies. Harris' death was very unfortunate, and to Gambon's credit, he tried admirably to step up to the role. But it really didn't work at all for me.
Warner Brothers better hope that J.K. Rowling pumps out her last two books in the series fairly soon, because the young sprites that play Mr. Potter, Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) are growing like weeds. It looks like it's their 4th or maybe 5th year in Hogwarts, instead of their 3rd. It's not that big of a deal now, but if they want to finish out the series with the primary actors, they'll probably be in their 20's, or close to it at least. But they all still do a very nice job in their roles in Azkaban. Radcliffe has probably his best performance as Mr. Potter yet, showing hints of the greatness he will have in the future. Watson has grown even more feisty as Granger and even Grint is a little more assertive as Weasley. Tom Felton gives another good performance as the wizard-bully Draco Malfoy, and series newcomer Gary Oldman gives a very nice performance as Sirius Black. He doesn't have much screen time, but he is on-point, as always, as the escaped wizard. But my favorite performance is from the brilliant Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. He is a marvelous actor, and he is just perfect as the good wizard who looks and seems bad. He has this mysterious aura about him and you're never sure how he will react to any situation, and Rickman portrays it wonderfully. I hope his roles get larger in the coming movies because he is probably my favorite character in the series.
Almost everything about this series is high-profile, but the one possible exception to this would be the script and screenwriter. Steve Kloves has written the first three movies, and he will continue to write the others, and I don't think he gets enough credit for his work. Yeah, the books are probably better than the movies, but that is almost always the case with any adaptation. But I think Kloves, who wrote a favorite of mine, Wonder Boys, does a great job with the script, with some nice dialogue and a nice, cinematic adaptation of the plot. I've heard arguments about what they left out of the book, but honestly, you just can't have everything from the book in the movie. I would've liked to see some more Quidditch, but I guess there is not that much in this book. Oh well.
Director Alfonso Cuaron creates probably the most beautiful Potter movie yet. His sets are quite lushly created and it is all shot nicely. What I didn't really understand was why they made such drastic changes to Hogwarts. In the first two movies, Hagrid's hut was right near the forrest, but in this movie it's in a totally different location, at the bottom of some hill. I don't really know why they changed it, because it's obviously different, and if there is some explanation as to why it's different, they don't give it. I didn't like his work with Gambon at all, but he does bring out a lot more in Radcliffe than we've seen before. Overall, he does a fine job, but there are some of his decisions that didn't really pan out for me.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban does work on many levels, but some of it just doesn't work at all. Potter looks older, Dumbledore looks younger...well, he is younger, technically, and while this is visually beautiful and a fairly entertaining movie, it doesn't quite conjur the same magic as the first two movies.